Rabbi Dr Isadore Epstein (1894 -1962) by Jack Epstein
My father was born in Kovno, Lithuania in 1894; his early childhood was spent in Paris, the family having moved there while he was still an infant. In 1902 the family settled in London. Showing great promise in his talmudic and related studies, my father at the age of 15 was sent by his parents to Hungary to further his knowledge of these subjects at the well-known yeshivot of Pressburg and Waitzen. In May 1914 he received his first semichah from Isaiah Silberstein, the Gaon of Waitzen. He then returned to London to continue his secular studies and in 1917 entered Jews’ College, the Jewish theological seminary of the British Commonwealth, from where, in 1919, he graduated with a first-class B.A Honours Degree in Semitics. At the same time he obtained rabinical diplomas from Rabbi Israel Daiches of Leeds and from the Chief Rabbi of Eretz Yisrael, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook who had briefly taken up residence in London at the time.
From 1920 to 1928 my father served as Rabbi in he Middlesbrough Hebrew Congregation. During this period he began his researches into the responsa literatuer. For his Responsa of Rabbi Solomon b. Adreth as a source of the history of Spain, he was awarded the Ph.D. degree by the University of London in 1923. The thesis was published in 1925. For the Responsa of Rabbi Simon b. Zemah Duran as a source of the history of North Africa he was awarded the D. Lit degree in 1926. This was published in 1930.
My father was one of the early researchers of responsa literature. As a result of his work his reputation as a scholar was firmly established, and his publications served as models for later scholars in the field.
He returned to London in 1928 where he was appointed as lecturer in Semitic languages and later also as librarian of Jews’ College, posts which he was to occupy until 1945.
His book Judaism of Tradition, (1931), an earlier publication of this period, is a collection of papers that he had composed at various times, mainly as lectures. Some of these had already appeared in print. The book provides an example, in the words of Chief Rabbi J. H. Hertz in the preface, of an ‘Anglo-Jewish scholar whose deep interest in living religion finds living expression in language which the ordinary layman can follow’. This lucidity of style was characteristic of all my father’s writings, both of an academic and of a popular nature.
In this period, too he began the monumental work for which he is best remembered, namely, the editorship of the first complete translation into English of the Babylonian Talmud with notes, glossary and indices. The work, in making the Talmud accessible to the English-speaking public, constitutes a landmark in Anglo-Jewish scholarship. Begun in 1930, the work originally appeared in 35 volumes between 1935 and 1952. The editorial work carried out by my father involved revision, correction and supplementary notes of alternative explanations, and of historical and geographical interest.
In 1945 he was appointed director of studies at Jews College and three years later its principal, a position he held until shortly before his death in 1962. As Head of the College he was to develop and extend the scope of its activities. The most significant of his innovations was the establishment of the Rabbinical Diploma class for the training of students for semichah. The devastation of the European centres of learning in World War II meant that the influx of European Rabbis on which Anglo-Jewry had relied in the past had now virtually ceased. Anglo-Jewry, my father maintained , would have to create its own Rabbinate. He was justly proud of this innovation, which proved to be successful in attracting not only students of the college but even those already holding important ministerial positions. Amongst other innovations which he introduced were a chazzanut class, the Institute for the Training of Teachers and the University Extension courses designed to promote a knowledge of Judaism among adults. In addition to his position as principal, he was for fifteen years the chairman of Board of Examiners for the University of London in Hebrew and allied subjects. He also served as chairman of the Academic Advisory Board of the Bar-Ilan University in Great Britain.
Despite my father’s heavy commitments as editor of the Babylonian Talmud translation and later in administration of the extended College curriculum, the flow of his writings begun in the Middlesbrough period continued with hardly a break. Through out his life he contributed monographs to learned periodicals and Festschriften. Two of these were published in the last year of his life (1962), another posthumously (1966). But it was thanks to his theological writing and educational publications (books, reviews and popular writings) that he became more widely known. With the appearance of the already mentioned Judaism of Tradition (1931), Judaism (1939) and The Jewish Way of Life (1946), he was recognized by the wider public as an authoritative exponent of orthodox Judaism.
My father’s most important book is The Faith of Judaism (1954). Presented in his usual easy flowing style, it has been described as a modern Guide to the Perplexed. He offers within it an interpretation of Judaism in the light of modern knowledge seeing as he states, ‘to vindicate the abiding validity of Jewish doctrine’. The book has gone through several impressions and has been translated into Hebrew and published by the Rav Kook Foundation, Jerusalem (1961).
The faith of Judaism is addressed mainly to the Jewish reader. For the general reader there are contributions on several Jewish topics to two major encyclopaedias (Chambers’ and Britannica). Further, with the publication by Penguin Books of the paperback, Judaism - A historical presentation (1959), already in its nineteenth English reprinting and its translation into five languages (French, Portuguese, Dutch, Italian and Russian), my father’s expositions reach out to a worldwide readership. This book presents a comprehensive account of Judaism against a background of four thousand years of Jewish history. For this he was honoured with the World Jewish Congress Book Award for 1959.
From the foregoing, we have a glimpse of the achievements of a distinguished scholar, the depth and breadth of whose knowledge in the various branches of Jewish learning were truly remarkable. He worked tirelessly as a teacher and guide. With his incisive intellect and gift for lucid presentation, he devoted his creative energies to interpreting Judaism to scholar and layman alike. Steeped in tradition as he was, his contribution to the Jewish heritage in the English-speaking world was outstanding. He used his vast erudition and scholarship in the service of Judaism, and through his writings displayed not only the deep insights of the scholar, but also the broad outlook of a man of faith steadfastly taking up the challenges to Judaism presented by the modern world.
The news of my father’s death sent shock waves through out the Anglo-Jewish community and beyond. It was an untimely passing - quite unexpected. He was so full of vitality - making plans for further programmes including a visit to Israel - that no-one with whom he had been in contact could have suspected that the end was so near. He was admired by all sections of the community both for his intellectual qualities and his character; his kindness, gentleness and sincerity.
His personal life was not without its sorrow. His marriage in 1921 to Jennie Hurwitz was tragically cut short by her death soon after I was born leaving two children - my sister Helen and me. By his marriage in 1925 to Gertrude Joseph, who gave birth to my brother Samuel in the following year, he was able to pick up the thread of his existence. Along with her voluntary work for Israel as an honorary vice-president of the Mizrachi Women’s Organisation, she was ever mindful of her husband’s scholarly work and took good care that he was able to accomplish his undertakings undisturbed.
Those who worked closely with my father would speak of his deep devotion to his work and of how unsparing he was of himself in promoting the projects he had undertaken in the interests of the community. He gained the high esteem and affection of all who knew him. He was always most approachable in his professional no less than in his private life. In teaching, the bond between him and his students was something more than the usual teacher-pupil relationship. He took a personal interest in them, encouraging them in their studies, rejoicing with them in their successes and, when required, offering them wise counsel and unstinting help. He epitomised the selfless, caring teacher. Vetzaddik be’emunato ychyeh - The righteous man shall live by his faith (Habbakuk 2:4). Faith in action was the hallmark of my father’s life.